As The Economics of Enough is out in paperback next Tuesday, it seemed a good moment to reflect on how it looks in the light of events since it was first published in February 2011.
I don’t know about other authors, but as soon as I’ve sent off the file with the last fiddly bits of proofreading done, I put a book out of my mind. When the bound copies arrive, it’s a joy to handle them and see how they look, but I can only bear to peep briefly inside at the words. It’s always possible to spot things that could be improved, and anyway I find it faintly embarrassing to look at my own work with the kind of external perspective having a physical book in hand seems to bring – it makes it ‘official’, somehow. Like looking at a photo of yourself, which I hate as well.
So although I’ve been giving many talks about the book, it is only this week that I’ve re-read most of it. It’s a relief to find it stands up pretty well. When I was still writing, and even during the gap between writing and publication, neither I nor many other people expected the economic situation to remain as weak as it has. The already sharp debate between deficit cutters and advocates of stimulus has grown even sharper as a result of another 18 months of at best weak growth, at worst continuing recession. The Eurozone crisis does not feature in the book, but the structural and demographic challenges faced by Europeans do.
I probably understated the political challenges of delivering any kind of long-term policies addressing structural economic change – events have made me more pessimistic. Since publication, I’ve thought some more about inequality, its causes and solutions. This was the subject of my Joseph Rowntree Foundation lecture at the University of York in February 2012. Great inequality at a time of economic recession/depression certainly contributes to the bitter political atmosphere, and at present I find it hard to predict what the results will be. On a good day, I remain optimistic about the scope for social and institutional innovation to start reversing the inequality trend, but on a bad day, I think it will get played out in the political arena, nastily.
As for fiscal sustainability, I hesitate to dip once again into the macroeconomic debate. Although I can’t see how the transmission mechanisms of either more expansionary monetary policy (with billions of unacknowledged bad debts remaining on banks’ balance sheets) or an infrastructure-geared fiscal stimulus (when it will take two years or more to happen) can boost growth quickly, the macroeconomists I know are mainly advocates of an urgent government spending boost. Additional current government spending would by definition boost GDP growth in the short term (C+I+G+X-M) and there seems to be a consensus that the multiplier is (probably) greater than one. Higher long-term growth is a supply-side issue, though; and the long-term fiscal arithmetic that I discuss in the book makes it clear that a bigger deficit now will require a smaller deficit/bigger surplus later, unless growth potential improves more than currently seems likely. At any rate, I defer to others on the short-term stimulus vs austerity debate, on which I have nothing to add; but there’s definitely no quick fix for the longer term problem.
So, overall, The Economics of Enough more than stands the test of time, I think. The trouble is that genuinely sustainable growth, in all its dimensions, involves difficult choices, trade-offs. Events have made those less palatable, not more, while the challenges of sustainability have grown.